The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur (2017)
Conkling was ecstatic that “his man” was President, and he suggested to Arthur that he keep Garfield’s Cabinet intact long enough until emotions faded . . . then Arthur could pack the Cabinet with loyal Stalwarts. Arthur’s return to NYC stoked fears that Arthur was indeed Conkling’s man. On 8 October 1881, Conkling met President Arthur, and the main topic was the Customs House. Conkling wanted Arthur to fire Garfield’s collector and to bring in a Stalwart. Conkling’s request, which seemed more like an order, surprised Arthur. Garfield’s assassination had greatly affected Arthur, and Arthur had started to seriously contemplate his place in US History. Arthur didn’t want to be disloyal, but he didn’t want to go down in history as a “Machine President”.
In early-December 1881, Arthur gave his first Address to Congress (what would become the State of the Union Address), and Arthur came out in support of civil service reform, and in the same speech he stated that there should not be too much emphasis on tests to determine merit. Arthur suggested that a central review board screen candidates, but that he would follow the will of Congress. As 1882 dawned, Conkling was desperate and depressed, and was without political power/influence. Arthur still cared about Conkling, and he nominated Conkling for a vacant spot on the Supreme Court, which was something that Conkling had refused to accept from President Grant. In early-March 1882, the Senate confirmed Conkling by a vote of 31 - 12, yet Conkling refused to take the position (he was the last confirmed Supreme Court nominee to do so). As the year 1882 unfolded, the Pendleton Bill (Civil Service Reform) was going nowhere fast, with many members in the House and the Senate opposed to the bill.
On 4 April 1882, Arthur vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Bill, but after an override failed, Congress passed a revised version that was only a little less harsh/restrictive, and Arthur signed the bill into law. But soon Arthur had another chance to show his mettle; on 2 August 1882, Arthur vetoed a bill that had historically become an automatic vessel for Congressional largesse which totaled $9 million.
In New York in 1882, it was an election year for governor, and it was a close race between Republicans and Democrats. What was working against the Republicans was that they were still divided between the Stalwarts (pro-Spoils System) and “Half-Breeds” (reformers), and Conkling had not given up hope that he could restart his political machine in the state. Arthur declared that he would not get involved in the gubernatorial election in New York, but no one really believed him. The Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland (age 45), who was the reform-minded mayor of Buffalo. Arthur did indeed stay out of the campaign, but Cleveland nonetheless accused Arthur of interference, and the Democrats prevailed. The Democrats also made large gains in Congress, and panicked Republicans blamed Arthur for the political disaster.
In March 1883, Congress laid the keel of the modern US Navy. Most Americans, however, didn’t see the point in doing so, in that the Atlantic Ocean separated the US from Europe, and the US didn’t have any colonies. The mission of the US Navy since the War of 1812 had been to defend US harbors, so therefore, conventional wisdom held that there was no need to venture very far from US shores. However, in the 17 years after the Civil War, the US Navy was not only inferior to European navies, but also to navies in most Latin American nations. And to make matters worse, virtually every ship in the Navy was wooden, the officers were inept and/or corrupt, and there were too few sailors.
Arthur saw the need to invest in a more modern Navy, and he had the right man at the right time to get the necessary funds out of Congress, Secretary of the Navy William Chandler. Chandler was the influential Republican that wired South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana when the results of the Election of 1876 in the Electoral College were still undecided. Chandler told the Republican leaders in those states to concede nothing, and then he went to Florida to be sure that Rutherford B. Hayes received that state’s total Electoral Vote.
Arthur took his time choosing those he wanted on the Civil Service Commission, and he made sure reformers were in the group. In May 1883, the commission submitted their recommendations to Arthur, and he executed them with only minor changes. It soon became clear that Arthur was implementing and enforcing the Pendleton Act with vigor. All the while, Arthur wined and dined the Stalwarts, but he didn’t do much else for them as far as what they wanted/expected from the Republican President.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, and it had been under siege by mining, logging, and hunting interests. In December 1882, General Phil Sheridan issued a statement that warned against leasing land in Yellowstone to private interests, and Arthur was sympathetic, in that he wanted to preserve forests that were in the public domain. Yellowstone was actually under Sheridan’s command, and the general believed that Arthur would be an even more ardent supporter if the President visited the national park. Arthur spent three weeks in Yellowstone during the Summer of 1883 in splendid isolation. On his return to D.C., Arthur sent for his physician, and he told his doctor that his arms and legs were swollen and that he was in a tremendous amount of pain.